Addiction as a Survival Method: The Link Between Addiction and Trauma.

There are many reasons and contributing factors for substance use disorders, including exposure to traumatic experiences, especially when the trauma has occurred in childhood. According to Bellis and Zisk, ‘trauma can affect the reward centers of our brain, making us more susceptible to substance abuse or other addictions.1)Bellis, M. D., & Zisk, A. (2014). The Biological Effects of Childhood Trauma. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 23(2), 185-222. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2014.01.002 as discussed in Arabi, S. The Invisible War Zone: 5 Ways Children Of Narcissistic Parents Self-Destruct In Adulthood. https://thoughtcatalog.com/shahida-arabi/2017/11/the-invisible-war-zone-5-ways-children-of-narcissistic-parents-self-destruct-in-adulthood/

Through the works of Bessel van der Kolk, Onno van der Hart, and Bruce Perry, we now know that trauma experienced in childhood ‘interferes with the body’s ability to self-regulate both psychologically and somatically.2)Fisher J. Addictions and Trauma Recovery. Paper presented at the International Society for the Study of Dissociation, November 13, 2000. San Antonio, Texas’ Once the nervous system has been so profoundly dysregulated, the consequential impact on a person is far reaching, possibly affecting both psychological and physical functions. Janina Fisher suggests in her paper, “Addictions and Trauma Recovery”, that in some cases, ‘psychological development is delayed or distorted, and identity formation must proceed along the “fault lines” that result from dissociative defenses and compartmentalization.3)Fisher J. Addictions and Trauma Recovery. Paper presented at the International Society for the Study of Dissociation, November 13, 2000. San Antonio, Texas

With trauma so severely impacting the normal, natural ability to function day to day, it is easy to see how the link between trauma and addiction is formed. In order to simply survive the daily life that we take for granted, adult survivors of trauma need to invent strategies that enable them to self regulate. Without these self regulating strategies, life would simply be too overwhelming. 

Self regulating strategies employed by adult survivors are often behaviours that they learned in childhood – either reenacting the trauma they experienced, or using coping strategies they discovered then such as self harm, or over/under eating. High risk or self medicating behaviours such as alcohol, sex, drugs, gambling or anything else that may facilitate the craved feeling of detachment by providing adrenaline and/or endorphins which can give temporary release from the feelings of depression, anxiety and fear associated with trauma.

When struggling with intrusive memories, fear, depression, anxiety or any other trauma related symptom, disembodiment or disassociation is a way of extracting yourself from your experiences, your body and the world. Therefore when trauma survivors turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to disassociate, they are using them to just feel normal, relieved of pain. Without them they may be unable to cope with the unbearable psychological or physical symptoms which have occurred as a result of their trauma. Disassociation and ‘addictive behaviors are also ingenious ways of altering consciousness and changing psychophysiological experience.4)Fisher J. Addictions and Trauma Recovery. Paper presented at the International Society for the Study of Dissociation, November 13, 2000. San Antonio, Texas’ Drug use can therefore be viewed as a resourceful but destructive survival method employed by those suffering with Complex PTSD. 

Therefore the link between trauma and addiction starts off as simple survival tactic but, because of the nature of the substances used to numb unendurable feelings, tolerance to the drug will increase with regular use. Therefore the amount of the substance used will necessarily need to go up to continue to work in the needed way. Eventually the substances will stop alleviating the pain of the trauma symptoms, but will still be needed to avoid physical and emotional withdrawal from the drug. This is then addiction. Ultimately the addiction has the potential to become more destructive and threatening to the trauma survivors life than the original symptoms of the trauma. This is often the time when individuals will reach out for help. For this reason it is imperative that both the trauma and the addiction are treated at the same time, otherwise one will simply undermine the other. ‘The trauma and the addiction can be healed by showing that the addiction was a self medicating way of coping with the effect of the trauma, so healing occurs when the client becomes conscious of the connection between them, and the implicit (unconscious) memories of the trauma become explicit (conscious)’ – John Kapp

Stop the cycle of merry-go-round treatment and find the solution you’re looking for in trauma treatment. Through effective residential treatment, Khiron House helps you find the path you need toward health and wellness in recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).

References   [ + ]

1. Bellis, M. D., & Zisk, A. (2014). The Biological Effects of Childhood Trauma. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 23(2), 185-222. doi:10.1016/j.chc.2014.01.002 as discussed in Arabi, S. The Invisible War Zone: 5 Ways Children Of Narcissistic Parents Self-Destruct In Adulthood. https://thoughtcatalog.com/shahida-arabi/2017/11/the-invisible-war-zone-5-ways-children-of-narcissistic-parents-self-destruct-in-adulthood/
2, 3, 4. Fisher J. Addictions and Trauma Recovery. Paper presented at the International Society for the Study of Dissociation, November 13, 2000. San Antonio, Texas

1 Comment

  1. Comment by Fi on

    Beautifully put together article,explained in very clear and valid terms but most of all it humanises addiction rather than just vilifying it!

    Thank you

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